Sunday, May 29, 2011

The rise and rise of the album

I recall an article a few years ago suggesting that the album format was essentially doomed in the digital era.  The basic premise is that with an increasing trend towards digital distribution, people have greater ability to choose to buy one or two tracks (typically the popular singles) and will prefer to do that rather than buying an entire album with some songs that might not interest them.  Some suggested we might end up with artists releasing only singles; others thought a 5 or 6-track EP might represent a happy medium of sorts.

There's still plenty of thinking along the same lines.

I'll preface the rest of this post by saying that I am still fundamentally an album listener.  I use playlists and shuffle a bit, but I still prefer listening to albums - because when they're done well they are far more than the sum of their individual tracks.  Dark Side of the Moon is a (somewhat extreme) case on point.  So is OK Computer.  So is Welcome to Sky Valley.

But I think the album format is as strong as ever and will be around for a decent while longer.  Here's why:

1. Bands like it and it works for them
For decades now, most artists have worked to a schedule of record album, release it, tour, have a break, repeat, roughly over a two-year period.  The cycle was a lot shorter in the 60's/early 70's, arguably because they were on different/more drugs.  And there are still exceptions to the rule - like Buckethead (OK, extreme example). 

But there's a reason that cycle still dominates the music industry - because it works for the bands.  It makes sense to record an album rather than pop back into the studio every few months to record another song - especially if you hit a really purple patch of creativity.  And even though touring cycles can be hard work, it makes more sense to tour on the back of an album because the two tend to co-promote each other.  Plus those touring cycles have always been and will always be hard - albums or not.  Spending a decent amount of time in the studio affords artists some valuable downtime from the rigour of touring schedules. 

This could change, of course.  The latest Gorillaz album, The Fall,  was recorded on an iPad, on the road.  But let's be fair - Damon Albarn is something of a musical transient. 

2. Bands are figuring out ways to make albums work better for them
When pressed to ask what the albums The Slip, and The Fall have in common, 87% of punters would suggest that they're a two-part concept album involving a banana skin.

No seriously though, Nine Inch Nails' The Slip and Gorillaz' The Fall are both examples of albums that bands have made available for free digital download, with a subsequent physical release.  I'm loathe to give Billy Corgan credit for anything much these days, but he had a similar idea about a decade earlier. 

Historically, albums have actually been a pretty poor deal for artists.  Check out Steve Knopper's Appetite for Self Destruction for a well-researched and fascinating look at this.  Most bands do a lot better out of touring.  But by embracing the internet, and avoiding major labels, many bands have realised they can have a lot more control artistically and financially.

Clutch are a good example.  After falling out with former label DRT Entertainment, they established their own label, Weathermaker Music.  The first big benefit of that is that they have full control over everything they produce and release - no one is forcing them to cater to any particular audience, and they can do what they want with their recordings (i.e. no Courtney Love behaviour).  The second advantage is that the economics work a lot better - Neil Fallon has mentioned that they do better selling 10,000 records on their own label than 100,000 on a major label. 

Trent Reznor and Radiohead were both also way ahead of the curve in terms of embracing the internet as a distribution mechanism - for albums, not singles.  And more recently several bands have pre-released full stream of their albums on the net - Foo Fighters, Beastie Boys, Soundgarden - to counteract leaks.

Basically, if the album format was history, we wouldn't have all these reputable artists coming up with clever ways of getting albums out to the masses.

3. A lot of bands are performing albums live in their entirety
Over the past five years there have been a number of both new and old artists that have played full albums as part of a live performance, far more than I recall them doing historically.  Roger Waters toured Dark Side of the Moon, then The Wall.  Mastodon toured Crack the Skye.  Gary Numan is touring The Pleasure Principle.  Megadeth toured Rust in Peace.  The Foo Fighters toured Wasting Light.  I could go on.

The point is, albums - both old and new - obviously still occupy a special place in the minds of the artists. 

4. Apple would like you to spend as much money as possible
Yes, record store numbers are dropping.  I can remember spending an entire day ("THE DAY!") with my mate Yuin working our way down every record store on Queen Street.  Real Groovy, Borders, the little Sounds store, Whitcoulls, the big Sounds store, the little Marbecks store, and the big Marbecks store.

Of those 7, Real Groovy almost went bust, Whitcoulls doesn't sell music any more (and almost went bust), Sounds did go bust, Borders is probably going to get shut down become Whitcoulls almost went bust, and Marbecks consolidated into one location (read: may have otherwise gone bust).

This isn't just about people downloading stuff, it's about people buying stuff online legitimately.  Apple more or less has that particular market cornered, and it's in Apple's interest to get you spending as much as possible.  So of course they'd prefer albums to push - that's why they came up with the iTunes LP concept and why they have that 'complete my album' feature.  That's why you can pick an album up more cheaply than if you purchased every track separately.

Look, if a computer company is smart enough to become the dominant player in music distribution, and it's still pushing albums, that says a lot.  And the record companies who let said computer company steal their thunder don't exactly have a history of innovation.

5. The internet loves albums too
No seriously, it does.  Just google 'mp3 blog album download' and see for yourself.  And that's even before we get into the murky realm of torrents.  Even when people can get everything they want, in whatever permutation they want, they're still choosing to download albums.  Economics tells us that is a 'revealed preference'.  But economics also tells us that if something is free people will probably take as much of it as they can get.  OK so economics tells us a lot of contradictory stuff.  Maybe just go back to the second sentence of this paragraph, then.

6. The alleged wave of singles/EPs has yet to arrive
So if artists are going to release music and they aren't releasing albums, then they must either be releasing singles or EPs.  That isn't difficult logic. 

No one is really doing that, though.  Rock bands aren't doing it.  Metal bands aren't doing it.  Even weird pop artists who wear steak rather than eat it aren't doing it.  The only artists doing it seem to be the new ones who don't have enough songs to release an album, and they've always done it that way until they actually can put an album out (or, failing that, fade into obscurity).  Even Justin Bieber went down that path, FFS, and if anyone is the (tragic) face of the internet generation it's him.

Anyway, that's my two cents on the matter.  And I do like albums a lot.  Several walls of my lounge will attest to that.  But the album format has worked for decades, some great minds are finding better ways to make use of it, and there's no evidence of any real alternatives becoming popular.  I shall go and listen to The Downward Spiral, then.

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